samuel and summer tomatoes

Good morning. How crazy it is to see you all here. But how fun.

Many of you know that we are gathered here today at the prompting of Anna, on behalf of Doug’s mom Jenny, who, on her last visit to Baja from Pennsylvania, missed her Presbyterian church.  Conveniently enough, we just happen to have a Presbyterian minister in town.

Anna brought this up to a few of us, and asked if perhaps we could gather for some sort of church, and asked if I would be willing to lead us in this. “So wait, it has got to feel enough like church for Jenny to feel ‘at home’ but not so much like church that the rest of everyone would take off running in the other direction…” It seemed like a fun challenge.  I am, of course, a bit crazy.

So, this is a bit of an experiment. It’s a bit of a fine line to be walking, trying to use language that is open to all and doesn’t unnecessarily offend or exclude. That is our intent—please forgive us, forgive me, if it is not completely successful and know that the intention is to give us all space to gather together as a community and connect with that which is more. Some people call it God. Some chafe at the word. Some prefer Spirit or Life Force, Essence or Energy.  All language is limited, isn’t it? How can we possibly describe something of which we can only see glimpses? For me, rather than making me want to give up the whole endeavor, that tasting of a piece, but not the whole, encourages me to want to go deeper. So, take from today what you will. For all of this is simply the finger pointing toward the moon, but not the moon itself.

Most of you know that I love to work in the garden. In fact, you might be sick of hearing about the garden by now. Sorry. When I say ‘work in the garden’ it’s not so much the vision of a victorian woman in her bonnet with a basket, trimming flowers to put in a vase. When I say work in the garden it is more like a pick ax, a lot of rocky ground, and filthy cut off jeans shorts. I love working in the garden. In fact, that’s probably where I will be this afternoon—and I’ve got a lot of arugula, if you want to come pick some you are welcome to.

I haven’t always been a gardener. In fact, I can fairly accurately pinpoint the beginnings of my green thumb. It was the summer of 2004. I had just moved back from Scotland, to be near my parents for the summer, as my dad was in the last months of his struggle with cancer. As it happened, he had planted tomatoes that spring. One evening, as we sat down to lovely summer dinner on the patio, my mom brought out a plate of freshly sliced tomatoes, that she had only just picked from the garden. I took a bite and I was both amazed and angry.

I was amazed at the flavor. It was so rich, so juicy, so…so tomato-y, but in a good way, not like a jar of tomato sauce way. I had never tasted anything like it. I was hooked.

My dad passed away that fall, but the next spring a piece of him lived on as I took on the role of planting the tomatoes in the garden.

It was about six months later, sometime around January of that following year, that the anger set in. I don’t remember the exact circumstances, only that I was eating a salad with vegetables that had come from the local super market. One of those vegetables was apparently called a tomato. But as I took a bite into the hard, flavorless and only slightly red item in my salad my taste buds rose up in protest. This is not a tomato! This tastes nothing like that one in July, fresh from the garden. I remember telling a friend, “They should have a different name for this—it should not be allowed to be called a tomato, it is so different in flavor.” Perhaps a bit extreme, but nonetheless, also somewhat true.  It felt a bit like a rip off, being sold this impostor, when I knew, when I had tasted, something so much better.

The story I read for you comes from the Bible, what’s often called the Old Testament, but what many prefer to call the Hebrew Scriptures, so as not to give the impression that something ‘old’ has been replaced by something ‘new.’

It is a story of a young man, Samuel, and an old priest, Eli (1 Samuel 3:1-10). Priest, in this case, is not catholic priest—this was way before there was any catholic church, and way before the story of Jesus.

This young man, Samuel, had been living in the temple his entire life. His mom, Hannah, had been barren and had prayed feverishly for a son. Her husband’s other wife—be careful when people tell you the Bible is all about good family values—had many sons, and made fun of Hannah for being barren. So Hannah went to the temple, and prayed. And this same priest, Eli, blessed her and told her she would receive what she had asked for. Sure enough, she had a son, named him Samuel, and in her thanks, dedicated him to the service of God.

So, Samuel, the son who had come from barrenness, grew up in the temple, like a son to Eli, the priest. Eli’s own sons, as it happened, were fairly corrupt, taking mordida, bribes, from the people and manipulating them to their own benefit.

Why in the world do you care about this? Just stay with me here…

So, as the story goes, Samuel is sleeping in the temple of the Lord, near the Ark of God—the very place that God was thought to dwell. But, also as the story goes, in those days messages from the Lord were very rare. Visions were quite uncommon. So it’s not really Samuel’s fault that, when he gets one such message, he has no idea what or who it is.

Three times God calls to Samuel and three times Samuel hears it, assumes it is the priest Eli, and goes to ask Eli what’s going on. But Eli, the representative, if you will, of organized religion, almost blind himself (ponder that one a bit) does not immediately realize it is God speaking either.

Finally, the third time it happens, Eli realizes what’s going on, realizes that it is God calling to the boy and tells him what to do. “When it happens again, here is how to answer: speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

And the Lord called to Samuel again as before and Samuel said Speak, your servant is listening.”

The thing is, the problem isn’t really the tomatoes. It’s just that tomatoes aren’t really meant to be eaten in January—at least in much of the northern hemisphere. They’re not in season.

But thanks to the wonders of globalization and industrialized agriculture, you can get that tomato for your salad in January almost as easily as July. The catch is, that January tomato has to come, more often than not, from far far away. So, not only is it picked while still green, but it has also been bred to withstand the long journey from the warmer climes to that kitchen table in Detroit, for instance. That breeding, for durability, means that the tomato can travel well without getting bruised and looking ugly in the grocery store.

The cost? Because there is quite a significant price to pay for that durability—that which allows a tomato to become bruised, the water and sugar content, is also what precisely what gives a tomato its flavor.

The answer, as far as tomatoes go, is not to give them up entirely—though some, after biting into that flavorless January version may be tempted to—understandably. If all I had ever eaten were the January tomatoes, I’d give them up too. The answer, it seems to me, is to eat them in season.

Now, that can be more involved than simply going to the grocery store on a whim—it means waiting until the warmer months return. If one is to attempt to grow tomatoes at home, it means cultivating the soil, creating the conditions in which the tomato plant can thrive. It means planting the seed, or the seedling, and nurturing it so that it can take root, watering it so that it can bear fruit. For me all it took was that one bite of the July tomato to make the extra effort worthwhile.

It seems to me that a lot of what has happened to ‘organized religion’ is that it has, over the centuries, been bred for durability often at the cost of flavor. Unfortunately a lot of what passes for religion is a lot like that January tomato—bland, flavorless, and not all that nutritious either.

It’s what had happened in the days of Eli and Samuel. As the story goes, even when God did speak, Eli, though devoted, was almost blind and didn’t seem able to hear. The young Samuel was hearing God, but didn’t know how to make sense of what he was hearing—he assumed it was coming from Eli—where else would a voice have been coming from in the middle of the night? Eli, though slow, to his credit finally did realize that it was God speaking. “Ah, right, that’s what’s going on…so, next time it happens, here is how to respond, speak, for your servant is listening.”

In other words, be present, be open, listen, pay attention, wake up to that which is calling you. Be in season, for the time is ripe.

Many of us here, myself included, have tasted enough January tomatoes to want nothing to do with them. So let’s be done with them.

July is just around the corner and there’s a garden to be tended…

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